The athletes have arrived, and the world’s attention is now riveted on a resort city on the Black Sea.
Durango twins Tracy and Lanny Barnes have concurrently entered the limelight. The media has fixated on their inspiring story, but will that attention soon wane? If a long-shot dream comes true, and Lanny can achieve a U.S. biathlon first, then the answer is no.
Lanny Barnes arrived Sunday in Sochi, Russia, to begin on-site training for the 2014 Winter Olympics. She prepares for her third Olympics in an unfamiliar role for a U.S. biathlete – under a spotlight. The reason for that, as people around the world are now aware, is because Tracy declined her spot on the team so Lanny could go.
In the days after the story broke Jan. 13, the 31-year-old twins suddenly found themselves talking live on NBC’s “Today” show and CNN’s “New Day.” They’ve done interviews for ESPN, NBC Sports and numerous other TV stations, online media, magazines and newspapers. Requests have come from all over Europe – Great Britain, France, Scandinavia, Russia – and countries as far removed from biathlon as Brazil.
Suddenly a sport that suffers from obscurity in the U.S. has a star.
“Somehow Lanny always does well under pressure,” Tracy said in an interview last week. “So I think a little more pressure might be good for her.”
Opening ceremonies are today (9:14 a.m. MST, 8:14 p.m. in Sochi), and the first medals will be awarded Saturday. Women biathletes will compete in six medal events beginning with Sunday’s 7.5-kilometer sprint. As of midweek, U.S. coaches had not said which events their five women biathletes will compete in.
“I really enjoy the course,” Lanny Barnes said in a phone interview from the Olympic athletes village Wednesday. “I can’t wait to race on it.”
Can dreams come true? Why not? They do at every Olympics. But she has some serious groundbreaking to do.
The dream: Lanny Barnes is peaking at the right time, will have a breakout Olympics and will bring home a first-ever U.S. medal in biathlon.
Is it possible? This is her third Olympics, so she knows what to expect. And her results have improved with each Olympics. In the 2006 games in Torino, Italy, Lanny placed 64th in the 15-kilometer individual. In 2010, in Vancouver, she was 23rd in the individual race – the highest placing for a U.S. Olympic team woman biathlete since 1994.
The Laura Cross Country and Biathlon Center near Krasnaya Polyana, about 40 miles east of Sochi, is at 5,900 feet elevation. That’s near the maximum elevation allowable under international rules. Lanny grew up at 6,500 feet and trained at elevations much higher. Advantage Barnes?
The reality: Germany leads the Winter Olympics biathlon medal count with 43. While biathletes from 18 other countries have stood atop the medal stand, none have worn the U.S. red, white and blue.
Biathletes from European countries, Russia included, are celebrated and renowned, and get excellent support from their governing bodies. Tens of thousands of spectators attend biathlon World Cups in Europe, and television demand bumps biathlon into prime-time evening starts. The last time the U.S. held a biathlon World Championship was 1987 in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Although Europeans dominate, it should be noted that earlier this year, Lanny’s teammate, 26-year-old Susan Dunklee, placed a U.S. women’s best-ever fourth at a World Cup. And 32-year-old New Yorker Tim Burke took a silver at last year’s Worlds. Is a U.S. Olympic medal far away?
Tracy Barnes says she’s probably put more energy into media interviews in the last couple of weeks than she has her entire career.
“You know, biathlon’s relatively unknown (in the U.S.),” she said. “I think it’s been good for the sport, to give biathlon some exposure.”
Since it was really her doing, maybe it’s fair that Tracy has handled the brunt of the media load, literally flying between New York and Los Angeles for appearances. But Lanny has done her share.
“The first couple of days afterward, I had people calling my hotel all night long requesting interviews,” Lanny said. “I ended up having to tell the front desk not to patch any call through after I went to bed so I could get some sleep.”
Tracy Barnes, an Olympian in 2006, earned a spot on the 2014 team with an excellent performance at U.S. team trials held in conjunction with an event in Ridnaun, Italy. But citing her friendship with her sister and the belief that Lanny, who was sick during qualifying and did not compete that weekend, might have a better chance, she bowed out. Lanny was next in line.
Lanny learned of the decision when the sisters took their routine postrace walk together. She tried to get Tracy to reconsider, but her sister was insistent. Tracy headed back to Durango while Lanny remained in Italy to continue training.
“I just figured I’d fly home and get to see the family and all that,” Tracy said. “I actually didn’t expect any of (the reaction).”
She made it as far as Minneapolis, then doubled back to New York City for the NBC and CNN interviews. Lanny appeared live from Italy.
“She is an amazing person and my hero,” Lanny said. “I hope people ... are also inspired to do something great for someone they love, as well.”
The media crunch continues. Tracy is flying to Sochi on Wednesday and said the U.S. Olympic Committee media relations department likely will keep her busy.
“I’m hoping to just go and watch some events and cheer Lanny on, but I think there might be some (media) stuff there, too.”
Lanny Barnes and the biathlon team drove Saturday from Italy to Munich, Germany, where they were “processed” by the U.S. Olympic Committee. That meant getting travel visas, clothing and uniforms, and having photos taken.
On Sunday morning, along with lugers, cross country skiers, figure skaters and freeskiers, the biathletes flew to Russia. Rifles, as is customary at Olympic games, went straight to the venue.
From tropical Sochi, with its palm trees and lack of snow, biathletes and cross country skiers went to the “Endurance Village” created specifically for them.
Barnes said the village seems safe and simple. It’s a 5- to 10-minute walk to the race venue, making it easy to get around. That’s in contrast to 2010 in Vancouver, where they took a 30-minute bus ride and endured security checks each time they trained or competed.
The Krasnaya Polyana venue is surrounded by snow-capped mountains that simultaneously make Lanny think of home but also feel at home.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” she said. Afternoon trainings have been held under deep blue skies, while evening trainings have featured “awesome” sunsets.
“It’s quickly becoming one of my favorite venues for sure,” she said Wednesday after an evening training session and a late dinner.
The squad trains late in the day because many of the biathlon events are scheduled for night.
The venue’s remoteness has one large downside. U.S. biathletes will not be attending opening ceremonies. Team coaches decided the five-hour round trip and standing in the cold wasn’t worth the health risk, and Lanny supports the choice.
Lanny Barnes is excited at the prospect of her sister’s arrival. The twins, born and raised in Southwest Colorado, have been training together in biathlon since 1997, when they were high school freshmen.
After the trials ended and Tracy gifted her spot to Lanny, “It seemed like it all went by too quickly,” Lanny said. “I didn’t have a lot of time to express my gratitude to her.
“It’s hard not to be completely motivated and focused,” Lanny said. “I’m very excited for the competition to start.”